Book of the week: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
In his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize, Ishiguro tells a story with ‘devastating significance’
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels have often been about “outsiders trying to navigate worlds that are mysterious or faintly threatening”, said Jon Day in the FT. In his latest – his first since winning the Nobel Prize – the narrator is a type of robot known as an “AF” (“artificial friend”), whose job is to provide companionship for lonely children. When the novel opens, Klara has yet to be bought, and spends her days standing in a shop window, puzzledly observing passers-by and bathing in the sun (from which she gets her energy). One day, she is picked out by a girl named Josie, and goes to live with her. Although much about this set-up feels like “familiar sci-fi fare”, it’s “deftly done”, and gradually this scrupulously unshowy novel reveals its “true and devastating significance”. This is “a book about the big questions of existence”. What is a person, for instance? And how should we “respond to the unfairness of the world”?
As is often the case with Ishiguro’s novels, the plot takes a while to get “airborne”, said Ian Thomson in the London Evening Standard. Partly that’s because of his “careful and understated” prose, but it’s also down to Klara’s imperfect understanding of the world, which leaves the reader with many blanks to fill in. What eventually emerges, however, is disturbing. Klara finds herself in a hierarchical society – one where clothes precisely signify social status, fascism is on the rise, and where many people’s jobs have been “substituted” by robots. Teenagers need companions because they have stopped going to school: instead, they sit at home all day, glued to their “oblongs” (portable mini-computers). Josie is also “gravely ill” – the result of a murky genetic procedure known as being “lifted”, which some parents force on their children in the hope of enhancing their prospects. With its superbly imagined details and “hushed intensity of emotion”, Klara and the Sun “confirms Ishiguro as a master prose stylist”.
Ishiguro is, I think, alone among his generation of British writers in having “never written a bad or even mediocre novel”, said John Self in The Times. I scoured this one for “bum notes and found only one”: towards the end, Klara and Josie’s father cook up a plan which is “too neat and feels like it benefits the author, not the story”. Elsewhere, however, it’s a virtuoso performance – a work that feels like a “new definitive myth about the world we’re about to face”. Like the Booker Prize-nominated Never Let Me Go, it presents a “vision of humanity which – while not exactly optimistic – is tender, touching and true”.
Faber 320pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99
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